Rigor and remixing

Wes Fryer’s blog is a regular read of mine — typically a place to find consistently wise, realistic discussion of Web 2.0 as it relates to K-12 education. But I had to disagree strongly with the ideas in this post. Snippet:

There isn’t much to be enthused about in Sunday’s report from Austin on Texas governor Rick Perry’s proposals to further regulate higher education. According to the article, “Perry’s higher education plan praised: A senior federal official calls governor’s plan for more aid, incentives and accountability ‘a bold step,” academic “rigor” is again being held up as a fundamental educational goal. […]

Instead of lauding “rigor,” we need to reject it and instead embrace differentiation, flexibility, and high expectations. “Rigor” is not what we need in K-12 or higher education.

It would appear that Wes has made the same mistake as the Texas legislators to whom he refers: identifying “rigor” with standardized test scores. To say that rigor and high expectations are somehow divorced from each other belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what rigor is.

Rigor means that the professor holds high standards — standards of performance on class work (which should span a wide range of types of work) as well as high standards of personal responsibility. A rigorous education expects that students will exercise the discipline required to read and work as needed outside the classroom, seek help and contact with the professor frequently, make room in their schedule for school first and other things later, and hold high standards themselves for their work and conduct.

Wes goes on to lay out a vision for “School 2.0” focused on these three points:

1. Remix: Students need to regularly remix their learning to own the ideas.
2. Deregulation: Learners need to be freed to take the TIME required for in-depth rather than shallow studies in problem-based, project-based constructionist and constructivist learning activities.
3. Differentiation: Learning opportunities, challenges, and assessments must be differentiated to meet the needs as well as interests of a diverse array of learners.

I definitely agree on the deregulation point to the extent that time is perhaps the most important, and most conspicuously absent, factor in any level of education. As most regular readers of my blog know, I don’t really believe that governments ought to be in the education business, at least on the curriculum and day-to-day classroom level. As for constructivism, I’m agnostic. And differentiated instruction is a nice idea, but you must have the time freed up first.

But on the issue of “remixing”, here we see the problem of rejecting rigor. If students have not attained a high level of mastery of fundamental concepts — especially the mechanical side of those concepts, such as basic arithmetic and algebra in a math class or basic grammar in an English class — “remixing” will result in no ownership of anything but good feelings. You cannot reasonably expect a person to perform a quality improvisational jazz solo if they have not first spent hours practicing scales and mastering the dreadfully dull mechanical aspects of the instrument. You can’t expect a calculus class to do much in the way of quality creative work if they have difficulty adding fractions and doing basic algebra. It’s only after a critical mass of content mastery has been attained that students at any level are really capable of “owning” ideas.

This concept — that mastery must precede meaningful creative work — seems painfully obvious to me as a mathematician, teacher, and musician. But it seems that because the creative work is more “fun“, more marketable, and better-looking than the grunge work of mastery, there are some who want to put that first. It would be a huge mistake that we would continue to pay for, for a very long time to come.

How one measures rigor and decides whether or not an education is rigorous is another question, but it’s unwise to say that we need to “reject” rigor outright. Indeed, we need it in Wes’ vision of school to prevent education from turning into mere indulgence.

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